In ancient Greece, licorice was used to calm coughs and soothe upset stomachs. Modern research find that this herb boosts immunity, fights viruses, treat ulcers, reduces inflammation, protects the liver, eases menopause and, applied topically relieves eczema.
What it is?
One of the most extensively used and thoroughly studied herbal remedies, licorice has a long medicinal history. It was one of the first foods investigated in the US by the National Cancer Institute's experimental food program.
Cultivated in Turkey and Greece, the licorice plant – a member of the pea family – is a small shrub with bluish flowers. Its medicinal properties are in the root, or rhizome, which contains glycyrrhizin. Licorice is also a source of hundreds of other potentially beneficial substances, including plant oestrogens and flavonoids.
For therapeutic use, licorice root is made into capsules, tablets, tinctures and creams. Because it has a sweet, musty taste, licorice root is often combined with other herbs to mask their bitterness. Another form, DGL, or deglycyrrhizinated licorice, which has had the glycyrrhizin removed, is available in the US in capsules and chewable wafers and may soon reach the Australian and New Zealand market. The two types of licorice have different uses and effects on the body.
What it does?
The glycyrrhizin in licorice stimulates the adrenal glands to produce certain hormones, reduces inflammation and increases level of interferon, a virus-fighting substance manufactured by the immune system. Other compounds in licorice are potent antioxidants and may also mimic the effects of oestrogen in the body. licorice (especially the DGL form) has a beneficial effect on the digestive tract.
Licorice is helpful for respiratory problems because it fights the viruses that attack the respiratory tract, relieves symptoms such as coughing and sore throat and works to thin mucus. Because of its action on the adrenal glands, licorice is often used by nutritionally oriented doctors to treat chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and other disorders affected by the body's levels of cortisol, the main adrenal hormone. The herb can also be taken for virtually any condition involving inflammation. It's especially beneficial for hepatitis, combating liver inflammation and fighting virus that often triggers the disease.
The DGL form does not work the same way licorice root does. DGL enhances the body's production of substances that coat the oesophagus and stomach, protecting them from the corrosive effects of stomach acid. Therefore, DGL is helpful in cases of heartburn, ulcers and inflammatory bowel disease. In fact, in several studies, DGL was more effective than standard prescription anti-ulcer medications. It works only when mixed with saliva, however, which is why the chewable wafer form of DGL is preferred for digestive problems. These wafers can also speed up the healing of mouth ulcers.
Licorice may be useful for menstrual problems and for menopause. Though glycyrrhizin inhibits the effect of the body's own oestrogens, the plant oestrogens in licorice exert a mild oestrogenic effect. Women prone to PMS may find that taking licorice for 10 days leading up to their period eases some symptoms. In addition, topical licorice creams soothe skin irritations, such as eczema and cold sores.
- Reduces symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia.
- Eases digestive problems.
- Helps to treat eczema.
- Promotes hepatitis recovery.
- Enhances immunity.
- Eases respiratory illnesses.
- May be useful for menstrual disorders and menopause.
- Dried herb/tea.
- Glycyrrhizin, a key compound in licorice, raises blood pressure. Avoid licorice if you have heart, kidney or liver disease; high blood pressure; are pregnant; or are taking diuretics or digitalis.
- Reminder: If you have a medical condition, talk to your doctor before taking supplements.
How to take it?
For most disorders: Take licorice root three times a day in 200 mg pills (standardized to contain 15% glycyrrhizinic acid or glycyrrhizin) or 45 drops of the fluid extract.
For heartburn and other digestive troubles: Take two or four chewable licorice tablets three times a day, or take 45 drops of licorice extract.
For eczema: apply cream to the affected area three or four times a day.
Guidelines for use:
Licorice root supplements can be taken at any time of the day. (DGL wafers should be taken about 30 minutes before a meal and well chewed.) For a sore throat, lozenges containing licorice work best.
Possible side effects
Because of its effect on the adrenal glands, licorice root can increase your blood pressure. For this reason, do not exceed the recommended dosages. If you need to take licorice for more than a month, have your blood pressure monitored. Sweets made from real licorice and even chewing tobacco (which often contains licorice as a flavouring) can raise your blood pressure if they're used excessively. (The DGL form does not raise blood pressure and has no other side effects.)
- Preliminary studies in laboratory animals suggest a possible cancer-fighting role for licorice, particularly in preventing colon and breast cancer. Glycyrrhizin, its active ingredient, may be responsible for this effect because it can enhance immune-system activity. Plant oestrogens found in the root may also be involved, as far as combating breast cancer is concerned.
- Licorice may keep arteries clear and therefore help to prevent heart disease, according to a recent study. Researchers found that taking 100 mg of licorice root a day was enough to minimize damage from LDL ('bad') cholesterol, a primary contributor to plaque formation.
Licorice sweets are typically flavoured with anise oil, not licorice root. True licorice sweets come from Europe. Don't overindulge; they can elevate blood pressure, just as licorice root can.